VALHALLA RISING – Part 5

If you need to catch up with Valhalla Rising before reading this, here are the links:

VALHALLA RISING – Prologue

VALHALLA RISING – Part 1

VALHALLA RISING – Part 2

VALHALLA RISING – Part 3

VALHALLA RISING – Part 4

This is getting pretty lengthy now – I hope you enjoy!


Maureen’s communicator chimed six times before she answered it. She was busy working on a report for the Controller and the leaders of the surrounding regions about the cruel treatment of Rokesh, and why this would have a negative impact on all parties involved. She did not expect anyone to pay attention to it, but there was the small chance that someone might notice it and that, when they did, they would want to see something official with Maureen’s name on it. If she did not file the report, then she could almost guarantee that she would get in trouble for not filing it.

She also did not much care who was trying to contact her or what they wanted.

Eventually, she grew tired of the bleeping and flicked her wrist, opening the message that the sender was apparently desperate to deliver to her. It appeared on the screen above her desk, a long text file full of boring-looking bullet points and technical information that scrolled from top to bottom automatically, to reveal the scrawled sign of Zuwrath in an ugly dark yellow font.

Maureen thought the colour suited the Controller perfectly.

She cast aside her own report and flicked the screen back up to the top with an impatient finger. The title was “SCHOOLING FOR HUMANS”, and that was all Maureen needed to read before a sense of dread began to settle in her stomach. Schooling for humans? The Controller had outdone herself this time; human schooling was not supposed to be any of her concern.

A short note from Zuwrath – or more likely, one of her representatives – at the top of the page informed Maureen that every member of the human government had been sent this information too, and that it was to be implemented immediately. This was what humans were going to be taught from now on, and there were to be no arguments on the matter.

The first section was brief and oddly vague. It stated that human children had so far had a sloppy education that the virn needed to straighten out, to ensure that humans were provided with all the necessary skills they needed to successfully grow into adulthood. Maureen noticed straight away that the emphasis was on traits that human adults (and not virn adults) were supposed to possess, as though to put humans in their place below virn from an early age.

The second section listed areas of education, including the basics such as mathematics, science, and language, which Zuwrath expected to change. Humans would be taught specifically about virn who had made important discoveries, and references to humans such as Pythagoras or Einstein were to be discouraged. After the age of twelve (the end of lower and beginning of upper school in the virn education system, adopted by humans for simplicity), humans would no longer be taught virnin: though previously it had been compulsory, it was now labelled “unnecessary”.

Maureen was not the only one who would recognise these new tactics for what they were. The emphasis on virn over human mathematicians and scientists would teach humans children that the virn were mentally and technologically superior to them from a young age, without anyone having to say it aloud. The barriers that limiting language lessons would create would keep humans in lesser jobs, where they would earn pittance wages. In a few years, it could probably even be spun to make humans appear ignorant and unwilling to enter the virn sphere of life.

The third section of the message detailed examinations exclusive to human children, then the types of jobs that human children should be encouraged to go into when their upper school ended at seventeen. None of these jobs, Maureen noticed, would require leaving the camp. The examination results would be calculated according to a bell curve, and they would determine which careers the students were ultimately expected to take. The majority of humans would end up doing factory work.

According to the report, from seventeen to nineteen, humans would enter into work placement programmes, as though this bell curve system would instantly create jobs for every child to move into the career that was selected for them. Of course, most of these jobs would require very minimal training, so the reality would be that humans would work from the age of seventeen until they could no longer physically perform the labour or were made redundant.

All of this led into adulthood. A job that was preassigned, unlike virn students, who were given ample opportunities to explore different career paths. Virn students could select their subjects based on their interests, not on the results of their examinations. There would be no such choice for human students, only instructions to follow. No freedom for humans; only a duty to perform.

The final section of the message discussed the schooling of virn children in brief, and why this needed to be different from the schooling of humans. It mentioned further education, and why this should be reserved, interestingly not for virn per se, but for “those who live outside of the camp known as Valhalla” – which was essentially the same thing as virn-exclusive.

To Maureen’s eyes, this was the part where Zuwrath had, despite not stating anything outright, bothered to hide her meaning the least. Even if, by some miracle, a handful of humans did settle outside the camp, they would still be expected to attend a human school and would therefore not get the opportunity to enter further education.

Maureen closed the text document and opened a blank file. She stared at it for a long time. What could she say in response that Zuwrath would be likely to acknowledge? The Controller had not indicated that she was interested in making massive changes to the human education system before: that had always been an internal issue of Valhalla. She doubted there was anything she could write that would change Zuwrath’s mind.

It did not seem like a sensible thing to try to do, but that was why nobody else would try. Maureen had no choice but to write something.

She drew up several drafts analysing what the impact of these alterations would be from her point of view, but deleted them all. She was not saying anything that Zuwrath would not know already. Maureen then drew up a draft message that suggested mixed schooling, but that had never got her anywhere in the past, so she deleted that, too. In the end, she gave up on an official letter and instead decided on a personal message to Zuwrath that felt more meaningful than anything that was electronically signed, dated, and stamped.

‘Controller Zuwrath,’ she dictated to the screen through gritted teeth, ‘I just received your message about schooling. Have to confess myself disappointed. You’ve never shown any interest in this kind of thing before, even when I’ve brought it up. I suppose you knew I wouldn’t be impressed. Suggest we meet to discuss as soon as possible. Maureen.’

She sent the message before she could change her mind, and returned to her condemnation of Rokesh’s eviction with a heavy heart.

~

On the northern border of Valhalla, there was an expanse of open land that humans had named the No-Land. According to the virn government, it was land that humans could potentially expand upon in the future, but they had no intention of allowing any settlements there for several decades. Sometimes, children and teens of both species would gather there to hang out with their friends, whether because this irritated their parents or because they thought they could do something frowned upon and would not get caught there.

Humans and virn generally kept their distance from one another, even in No-Land. There were occasional shouting matches between teenage groups, but little more than that had been reported for a long time. No-Land was not considered a dangerous place: there was nothing of strategic value there to incite one side or the other. Neither species could claim any rights over the other to be there, or to use the land. It was not officially human land – yet – but it was destined to belong to humans and according to virn law, that meant it was not officially virn either.

There were a few tents along the border or No-Land. Most of the humans in Valhalla had situation themselves close to the factories, and near No-Land there was nothing to keep a large population employed. Those who lived in the tents were largely jobless – it was often said that the only employment was the task of cleaning the public conveniences.

Sometimes, visitors would come from deeper within Valhalla. They would pity the people on the border, but would only ever suggest one thing: move further into the camp. The response to this from the border folks was that they could envision no better lives for themselves being worked to death in a factory. The cycle continued.

A group of human children were playing together in No-Land. They kept close to the human side – it was common for those who lived around the border to do so. One was from inner Valhalla; the others were local.

The games they entertained themselves with were sweet and innocent. They ran around, shouting their excitement in the open air. They chased one another for hours, while on the other side of No-Land a gang of virn teenagers stood huddled together, listening to music and casting occasional glances over at the children, as though they considered the kids annoying.

Then the child from the inner camp, who did not understand the importance of staying close to the camp, got a little closer to the virn. A little closer, and a little closer, each time drawing the rest of the humans out with him without any of them realising it. After one particularly long chase, he slipped and landed in the mid a few paces from the group of virn. One of the teenager spun around.

Some of them had their hands on their hips. Others had their arms folded across their chests. All of them looked angry at the interruption. They wore bright colours – a display of rebellion against the bland work uniforms that matched virn skin colour. The one who had spun around, who had a hat sat on the top of his head with a wide brim that was flat against his forehead, stepped towards the child.

What do you think you’re doing, human?’ he asked, spitting as he spoke. The human boy, with a poor grasp of virnin, could only understand one word: human. He stood up as the other children gathered nervously around him, craning their necks up to look at the much bigger virn teens.

Sorry,’ he mumbled, the word a little slurred, then tried to back away. The other children stepped back with him.

Not so fast,’ the virn hissed. He reached out and grabbed the boy by the shoulder, pulling him sharply then letting him go, so that he fell face-first into the mud again.

The virn teens laughed.

The human children stood still, their eyes blown wide. They did not have to understand the virnin to know what the implication of these words were. The human boy pushed himself to his feet and wiped his face with his sleeve. Again, he tried to back away, and again he was dragged down into the mud.

Eat it,’ he was told, and when he frowned in confusion the teenagers imitated eating to get the message across. The boy remained still.

‘Let’s go. They’re mean,’ said one of the other children.

Shut up,’ one of the teenage girls snapped at her. The human winced at the tone. ‘If you can’t speak our tongue then don’t leave your crappy home.’

Better, if you can’t speak it, don’t live on our planet,’ another virn chimed in, as the humans shared blank but frightened expressions. ‘Lazy human bastards just expect us to learn their tongues and introduce their laws into our society to compensate for their backwards culture.’

My dad used to work in a factory that made spaceship parts,’ the first teen hissed. ‘Until human scum came along and took his job. Now they’re making poor quality parts on the cheap – good for nothing losers.’ He spat on the human boy still laid in the mud, who wiped the globule away with the back of his hand. ‘Stay still! If I spit on you, you’ll leave it where it lands! That’s your place in the universe!’ He placed his foot on the small of the boy’s back and applied just enough pressure to keep him still. ‘And this is mine.’

The rest of the human children began to edge backwards.

You know what you are?’ the lead virn asked as he leant down over the boy under his foot. ‘Do you? Want me to say it, you’re a wipt. You’re a low, dirty, disgusting wipt.’

The human boy looked up. The children halted and stared at the teenagers in horror. There were some words that every human knew.

Yeah,’ laughed another of the virn, ‘you’re all wipts.’

Wipts, wipts, wipts,’ the chanted in unison, laughing all the while.

The human children had heard enough. Those who were free turned and ran back to Valhalla; the boy on the ground pushed up against his captor and managed to scramble to his feet in the teen’s surprise. Before he could follow the others back to the camp, the chief tormentor reached into his belt and pulled out a long, thin dagger. It had a jagged edge on one side and was smooth on the other. He swept the jagged blade along the boy’s face.

The child screamed and ran, bleeding heavily onto his shirt.

Never forget what you are!

~

‘H – Hello? Is that Maureen Bradshaw?’

‘Speaking, yes. Hello. Who’s calling?’

‘Oh, Mrs Bradshaw, thank goodness! I’ve called so many different numbers for you, but they must’ve all been old ones – I need to tell you something, about something that happened on the border with Nesmara earlier today. It’s so horrible – so important – someone needs to tell the presses, to do something! We can’t tolerate this any longer, we can’t! Our children – frightened in their own homes. Oh, it’s awful! Have you – have you heard?’

‘I haven’t heard anything about Nesmara. Just calm down, please, and start with your name.’

‘Okay, okay, okay … my name’s Jessica.’

‘Jessica. Hi, Jessica. You can call me Maureen.’

‘Thank you, Maureen.’

‘Not at all. Now, Jessica, please tell me what happened. In your own time.’

‘Okay, okay … well, we were visited by a couple of friends and their young son this morning. We let our kids play together on the border, in No-Land – a shared space for humans and virn alike. There were some virn teens out there. Normally they’re fine, you know, they don’t make a fuss or anything. Sometimes they all hang out or even play together. Only this time … oh, it’s so awful! One of the virn attacked their little boy – none of us saw it happen, because we’ve never had to worry about anything like this before, but they attacked him with a knife across his face! He’s going to have a scar under his left eye now, we’ve done what we can for him but when the doctor came about an hour ago she said it’s likely he’ll have the scar for the rest of his life.’

‘Hold on, hold on, Jessica. Did you say the virn teen attacked him? Why?’

‘According to the other kids, the virn started on him when he got too close.’

‘Oh, how awful. I’m so sorry, Jessica. I hope he’s all right.’

‘He’ll recover, in time. What we want to know is if there’s anything you can do to make sure these virn kids get what’s coming to them. Our kids still need to go out and play. We don’t want them to be afraid of going into No-Land.’

‘Well … I’ll certainly see what I can do.’

‘We’ll be eternally grateful.’

‘I hope I can give you some good news. Thanks for letting me know, Jessica. And give my best to the kid and his parents.’

‘Thank you, Maureen.’

~

Maureen wasted no time in contacting Starg about the incident in No-Land. Although it was not his territory, she did not know the Keeper of the Peace in Nesmara, the region north of Valhalla, as well as she knew Starg. She wanted to use her relationship with Starg to persuade the Keeper of Nesmara to openly discuss the issue of virn violence against humans, an issue they were unlikely to discuss with her without persuasion.

The longer she waited, the less likely it would be that anybody would care.

This was not like other attacks she had known in her time as Liaison. It was not a group of drunk virn and a group of drunk humans clashing with each other on a street. It was not a gang of virn targeting a human or a gang of humans targeting a virn. It was not a long-running feud or a bitter argument. It was not even a racist attack that had escalated and got out of hand. This was teenagers attacking children, and she did not think Starg would be able to deny the moral dilemma when he heard it.

Maureen finally had proof of something she had been saying to both Starg and Zuwrath all along: that the bitter dislike that had emerged from human and virn misunderstanding had grown into something dangerous, inherent in society. If children and teens were getting involved in the physical fight, then that was all the evidence she needed.

She informed Starg that she was going to visit him and left Valhalla at the earliest opportunity. After Jessica’s evening call, she had spent the night planning what she was going to say and, after a few hours of sleep, had located a transporter the next morning. When she arrived at Starg’s office in Pika, he was there waiting for her.

‘What is it?’ he asked. His eyebrows were forced together in a knot in the middle of his head, as though a visit from Maureen was the last thing he needed. She recognised the annoyance on his face and realised she would have to keep it short.

‘The Keeper of Peace in Nesmara,’ she replied, ‘doesn’t like me.’

‘None of the Keepers like you,’ Starg assured her.

‘How flattering, Starg. Yet however much you protest, you at least came to Valhalla, instead of expecting me to always come to you. You have seen how I live and you know more about Valhalla than the rest of them put together.’

Starg’s top lip quivered. ‘And?’ he snarled.

‘… And I was hoping I could ask you to use your influence to persuade the Keeper in Nesmara to do something important for my people.’

Starg sighed. He rubbed his forehead with his hand, then dropped the hand down by his side.

‘Why do you not speak with him yourself? Dragu is an intelligent man.’

‘But I’m not close enough to him. I know what he’ll say to me. I need you to help me to speak with him, someone on his level who can give me a bit of a boost. Come on, Starg, think about it: I wouldn’t have to keep coming to you with all my problems if I got on better with other Keepers.’

That would be a good thing indeed. I have to deal with so many human issues currently that I have no idea which direction I am heading in.’ Starg’s eyebrows drifted apart, and his expression cooled somewhat. ‘So, tell me what it is this time.’

‘There’s a place between Valhalla and Nesmara called No-Land,’ Maureen began.

‘I’ve heard of it.’

‘Yesterday, a group of virn teenagers attacked a human child there.’

Starg’s eyes widened. He took a step towards Maureen; she held her ground. ‘You can prove this?’ he asked.

‘The child is physically scarred.’

Starg nodded. Then, he tilted his head and his eyes narrowed again. ‘And you want …?’

‘I want you to help me persuade Dragu to publish it in the media. Big news. This should be making headlines.’

Maureen’s words were met with a short, sharp bark of laughter from Starg. He stepped away from her and began circling the room, still grinning to himself, and chuckling occasionally.

‘You’ll have to go to Zuwrath, then.’

‘That’s what I was afraid you’d say. Starg, can’t we do this without involving her?’

‘No way,’ Starg scoffed. ‘I refuse to get involved in that – Zuwrath would have me by my balls. If you want it, you’ll have to do it yourself.’

He waved her out, and Maureen left.

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VALHALLA RISING – Part 4

You can catch up with the Valhalla Rising novella via the links below:

VALHALLA RISING – Prologue

VALHALLA RISING – Part 1

VALHALLA RISING – Part 2

VALHALLA RISING – Part 3


Like many human children, Christine had become used to seeing her parents cry from an early age. They had cried because they had been worried about Christine; they had cried because they had been worried about money; they had cried because they had allowed themselves to reach the brink of starvation just to feed their daughter. Every tear that Christine had seen had brought with it a new revelation.

She had not even been aware that there was another way to live until she had turned eight. As much as her mother and father – her dear, sweet father – had tried to hide their tears from her, it had been difficult when they had all lived together in a one-room container.

Christine and her childhood peers had been taught to stick to their local communities in Valhalla, and warned not to stray too far from their homes for any reason. It was not only virn who could be dangerous: a stray child wandering around in Valhalla made easy prey for anyone with bad intentions. These warning usually kept children away from the borders of the camp until they reached their early teens.

Some had known more than others. Maureen had wanted her daughter to enjoy her childhood as much as possible, and that was why she had tried to keep Christine in the dark. School had taught Christine the basics of six different languages: five of them human, and some simple virnin, but the only time that Christine had seen virn was in the media.

That had changed on her eighth birthday. She had wanted to throw a party and invite some of her closest friends along, but the local park had not felt exciting enough. Christine had heard whispers from some of the other children about theme parks and adventure playgrounds, where children could go on all sorts of thrilling rides. It had sounded like a dream birthday treat.

There was nothing like that in Valhalla. Space was reserved for housing and there were no funds for the upkeep of public land. So, once Christine had proven unmoveable on the topic of a birthday party in a theme park, Maureen had used her connections to the virn government to get them permission to visit one.

This had caused a lot of strife between Maureen and the other parents. Christine had not understood what the problem was at the time, but once she had grown up she had come to realise just how huge a suggestion like that could be. To take their children beyond the borders of the camp, where they would be surrounded by virn, was to put them in a frighteningly new situation. Maureen had fallen out with a number of people to make her precious eight-year-old happy.

Christine had been aware of some of the things that virn news agencies said about humans – she had not been completely ignorant. Her parents had, however, always encouraged her to believe that she was equal to a virn. Their word had been good enough for her, and for that reason she had understood no significant difference between the two species. News anchors and the occasional children’s show had taught her what virn looked like. She had been able to speak enough virnin to look cute without saying anything meaningful. Her father had wanted her to speak with virn children, so that she could get some first-hand knowledge of the language and see that they were ultimately the same. He was one of the reasons why Christine had not turned into a bitter, twisted, anti-virn adult.

In the end, only one of her friends had gone with her. Even that had been an achievement. The parents of the other girl had also attended, and they had clung to their daughter’s arm whenever a virn had so much as looked at a member of the group. When they were sure that no virn were in earshot, they had been rude and nasty about the species.

Christine’s parents had shown far more decorum. She distinctly remembered her father turning to the father of the other girl and telling him to “stop being such a judgemental wanker”, because it was the first time that Christine had ever heard her father swear. She had mimicked her parents’ behaviour (minus the swearing), and had been as polite to the virn as she was to any human.

This attitude had largely received a negative response from all virn – apart from one little boy.

He had been stood in front of her in the queue for one of the rides, which was not dissimilar to the merry-go-rounds pictures in old human books. Christine had spotted it from a distance and felt drawn to the music, as well as the sight of the riders spinning slowly as they bobbed up and down on wooden beams. It was not the most exciting ride, but the passengers had been cheering loudly, and so she had asked her mother if she could go on it.

By the time that they had joined the queue, Christine had been used to the stares of the virn around her. It had felt strange to have so many pairs of eyes on her at once – and that would never change – but the park had been far too exciting for that to bother her much. The stares of adult virn had been worse than those of their children, because the adults had apparently forgotten how rude it was to stare and make someone else – a child, nonetheless – to feel ashamed simply for existing.

That was why, when the virn boy in front of her had turned around to look at her, Christine had ignored him. She had smiled and looked right through him, as though he had not been there at all.

Her friend, on the other hand, had reacted defensively in her first close real-world encounter with her virn peer.

‘Why are you staring at us?’ she had asked, in the best example of an angry nine-year-old voice Christine had ever heard. The girl’s parents had each grabbed hold of one of her arms. ‘Go away.’

The virn boy’s gaze had shifted slightly, and he had looked at Christine’s friend as though he had not considered that his gaze might provoke such a hostile reaction. He had replied in his own tongue. ‘I wasn’t looking at you. I was looking at her.’ Then he had pointed at Christine, who had spun at her waist to silently question her mother.

‘Can you ask him, mum?’ she had asked. Her father probably would have made her speak to the boy herself, but her mother had been kinder on her quiet nature, and had jumped in before the man could argue. Maureen’s virnin has been infallible even then, so she had politely asked the boy why he had been looking at Christine, and he had hissed something back that Christine had not understood.

Both of Christine’s parents had chuckled.

‘What is it?’ she had asked them.

‘It’s … it’s …’ Maureen had said between laughs, a rare look of genuine amusement on her face, ‘it’s … oh, Chrissy. He says he thinks you’re pretty.’

‘I was hoping it would be a few more years before something like this,’ her father had added.

Christine could not remember blushing so strongly either before or since. Her face had glowed red with the heat that had risen off her skin, and her parents had laughed even more at the sight.

‘Can you speak my tongue?’ she had asked the boy, because her translators had not seemed like much use to her in those moments.

‘Very small,’ he had replied, indicating this with two fingers held close together, followed by something extra in virnin. They had just about been able to share their names using a combination of English and virnin, so Maureen had helped to translate between them for a while.

The queue had been long, but it had not been long enough.

‘Rokesh wants to know if he’ll see you again,’ Maureen had said to Christine, when they had been close to the front.

‘I don’t know, mum. Will he?’

Christine’s parents had shared a look. ‘Why ever not? We’d be happy for you to have a virn friend.’

‘Providing he’s only a friend,’ her father had teased her. Christine had not understood the implication of this at eight, but she was sure that her father would have found it amusing had he discovered how things had turned out. She had agreed to meet Rokesh again and Maureen and the boy’s mother had exchanged details so that they could schedule a convenient time and place.

When the humans had been back on the transporter, making their return journey to Valhalla, her friends’ father had commented on Maureen’s willingness to speak on friendly terms with virn.

‘They all treat us like the crap on the bottom of their shoes!’ he had exclaimed loudly. Maureen had rounded on him in an instant.

‘Firstly,’ she had retorted, ‘I behave as I do to stop ignorant humans and virn alike from publicly insulting one another and causing unnecessary grief between our species. Secondly, I do it because if we keep whispering and making nasty little comments behind their backs, then they’ll only shun us more. And thirdly, if you’d bothered to learn your virnin, you’d know that the boy we were talking to was a half-blood with a human father.’

The man had not said a word after that. Maureen had arranged for Rokesh and Christine to meet up in a neutral area on the eastern border of Valhalla, where they had swapped childhood games and held hands as though it had been the naughtiest thing anyone had ever done.

Five months later, Christine’s father had died.

She had drifted into a mental realm where she believed that nobody would ever accept her again. Maureen, who had been grieving heavily herself and had never shown interest in another, had tried her best to keep Christine in high spirits, and it had done wonders when Christine imagined where she might have been without her mother’s help. That did not mean it had been enough.

Rokesh had asked her to play, but she had not answered any of his calls and he had grown frustrated with her. Nevertheless, the boy had continued to be persistent, and Christine had been on the verge of blocking him when his final message – translated by a cheap but generally effective tool – had changed her mind.

I know it’s bad. My dad’s gone too. He was a nice man. My mum says that I’ll see him again in Shrl. Do you think that your dad and my dad are friends now? I think so.

            Shrl, the virn afterlife typically only mentioned during times of great mourning, did not have a religion connected to it as human concepts of the afterlife did. It was not associated with the performance of good or bad deeds, or of somehow being worthy of attaining eternal salvation. Humans were not taught about Shrl in school, mostly because human parents disapproved of teaching their children about non-human beliefs when that time could be dedicated to human ones.

Christine had asked her mother what Shrl was and whether her father was there, and Maureen had smiled and squeezed her shoulder.

Shrl isn’t like human beliefs,’ she had said. ‘Lots of humans think it’s strange – but, really, it’s no stranger than our beliefs. It’s just this place where everybody goes when they die. The virn believe that everybody looks the same there, because everybody is the same in spirit form. No difference in species, or height, or hair colour, or skin colour, or gender, or body shape … or anything.’

‘If everybody looks the same then how do you know who everybody is?’ Christine had asked.

‘Well, I don’t know. Maybe people wear name badges.’

In reality, the concept of Shrl was a lot more complicated than Maureen had made out. It was a non-physical plane of existence which existed both parallel to and beyond the physical world. The basic principle that Maureen had taught Christine was true, however: in Shrl no single species or individual was supposed to have any distinguishing marks, although it was actually thought to be a non-physical afterlife.

Maureen had taken Christine to visit Rokesh and his mother following the message. Maureen and Rokesh’s mother had been good friends for many years, until the latter had died. Christine and Rokesh had been young adults at the time, and had not long been declared an item.

Three years and six months later, and Rokesh was there stood at the doorway of Christine and Maureen’s container. It was raining heavily, a torrent of water cascading down off the metal roof onto his hair, flattening it. He was shivering. Christine invited him in immediately.

You didn’t say you were coming,’ she said, as he stepped inside and shut the door behind him. Christine had proven more adept at speaking virnin than Rokesh was at any human language, so they spoke in virnin whenever they could. She kissed him on the cheek, then opened a cupboard and pulled out a towel, which he received gratefully.

I didn’t actually know that I was coming until a couple of hours ago,’ he replied.

Why, what happened? You look awful! You’re all right, aren’t you? You’re not hurt or anything?

I feel awful. I’m not hurt, no – but I’m not all right, either, it’s just …’ Rokesh sighed and dropped the bags he was carrying onto the floor. There were three of them, large and stuffed haphazardly with his personal affects. ‘Well, I’m here now, anyway. There’s a lot of negative stuff going around at my work. Anti-human stuff. And they found out that the non-virn half of me is human, and they fired me. Didn’t stop there, either – I was encouraged to leave town. Gently, at first. Then, when I didn’t leave fast enough, much less gently.

Oh no, oh my goodness, oh Rokesh! Sweetheart, come here,’ Christine exclaimed, holding out her arms. He leaned into her, burying his head into her shoulder. His scales were rough against her neck, but no worse than stubble. ‘Don’t you worry now, honey, you can stay here with us.’

Your mother won’t mind?’ Rokesh asked. Despite all that Maureen had done for him in the past, he still sounded genuinely confused. Christine wondered whether he was really asking whether Maureen would mind, or if everybody else in the camp would mind.

No honey,’ she said, ‘she won’t mind at all.’

~

It was a three-mile drive from Valhalla to the closest virn town, and a good thing that was, too. The camp met the empty road, a shadow of tents and rectangular metal containers that looked gloomy and unkempt – where there was no wall to keep the humans in their place. Litter lined the road, but it was nothing compared to the sheer amount of rubbish in the camp.

Humans did not like to live in their dirty surroundings. If they have been able to do anything about it, well, then many of them said that they would have. It was Zuwrath who had decreed that garbage collections in the camp should occur only once every fortnight, rather than the standard three times a week that virn communities on the planet received. If there was a lot of rubbish produced on Montague 7, then that was because of the sheer numbers living on the planet.

After all, spending too much money on humans was highly frowned upon by many prominent virn figures. The more prominent they were, the more likely other virn would listen to what they had to say – and so the less that could be spent on humans the better.

The real cause of the litter problems in Valhalla was that the garbage collectors only turned up about half of the times they were supposed to, and when they did turn up they worked as fast as they could so that they could leave again. This meant that Valhalla was only serviced about once every four weeks, and poorly. The litter had naturally piled up until it had exceeded all storage capacity.

Although Maureen and the other leaders of the camp had done what they could to encourage their fellows to reuse, or else to dispose of their waste in the best possible way, there simply were not enough bins to go around.

The smell was more repulsive than the sight. It rose through the air and caused those nearby to cough and gag. The stench of rotten food, soiled clothing, and general waste was at its worst during the summer months, when the heat made the smell almost unbearable.

The people themselves were hardly in a better condition. They were smelly and miserable, though neither were their fault. The toilet system was appalling, with no private bathrooms in the camp whatsoever. Valhalla was dotted with small, brick buildings (as well as some of the original fifty-year old wooden cabins), which served as rudimentary public lavatories.

As for the public showers, they were little better than the toilets. There were separate blocks assigned to men and women, but there was little anybody could do to stop the wrong person walking into the wrong block, and there was no room for those who did not fit comfortably between the two genders. Hardly any of the showers had curtains, which meant humans became used to having next to no privacy from an early age. The lack of security meant that most families had a story.

Showering in groups was important, just like many other basic parts of human life. The simple act of walking alone could be dangerous – everyone in Valhalla knew that.

Once a visitor accepted the smell of the camp and the sight of the litter, they began to notice just how awful life in Valhalla was. The exhausted faces of the people said more than their words could ever have done. Their eyes were blank and hopeless, their lips dried and chapped, their skin grey and prematurely aged.

With so many crammed together in such a small, confined space, disease was rife. Though helpful young virn who were taking a year out of the medical degrees would come along to inoculate the children, and well-meaning virn charities sent volunteers to provide clean water and improve the sanitation – often temporary improvements – this could not prevent the spread of sickness.

Some of these diseases were venereal, and these were often the ones hidden away, unnoticed even by the carriers. Others were diseases that had been brought from the Earth, which had thrown the virn medical community into panic when humans had first arrived on Montague 7.

Humans suffered the most from virn diseases. Their immune systems struggled to cope with these alien viruses, and human science was not effective enough to defend them from some of their devastating consequences. Humans relied almost entirely on virn cures for these, as virn medicine was both more advanced and more effective.

Despite their problems, humans had learned to keep brave faces. They were a strong and defiant species, and they were keen to show it. Their schools were crammed full of students, and they used virn science and philosophy to demonstrate their sophistication and intelligence.

Some virn, apparently horrified by the idea that humans could reproduce, claimed that they bred too quickly, and that this was why their schools were so full and their camp was overcrowded.

Valhalla had originally been designed to hold five-hundred-thousand humans, and it had been classified as a settlement rather than a camp. The virn leaders who had brought the first thirty-five-thousand humans to Montague 7 had at least been smart enough to leave plenty of room for humans to repopulate their species. They had also introduced exercises to encourage cultural integration, in the hopes that before they reached capacity Valhalla would no longer be necessary.

Ten years after the arrival of the first human settlers, however, the project had proved too expensive, and the virn government had pulled out of what they had referred to as the “Valhalla Operation”. They had severely limited the amount of space allocated to Valhalla and then placed a single virn in charge of finding some way to combine virn and human society in a way that neither side would object to. A way which would ultimately benefit virn the most. This was the Controller.

The first Controller had been genuinely interested in human culture and the ways in which it was like virn culture. He had been happy to visit Valhalla, and had often called upon the virn government to provide humans with greater protection and improvements to what, by that time, was already being called a camp site.

That was when the owners to the largest virn media groups had stepped in and shaken things up. They had manipulated their news broadcasts to label humans as lazy beggars who were trying to take money out of the rich virn economy. This had not only led to the virn government refusing additional funds to Valhalla, but also to the withdrawal of some funding and the firing of the first Controller. Walls had been built around the camp, although they had never fully been completed.

A new Controller had been selected from within the ranks of the government, as had been the rule ever since. They were always decidedly anti-human, and through this sentiment the virn government was able to secure its hold on power on Montague 7. Their harsh treatment of the humans in the camp had satisfied the virn public for forty of the past fifty years, and during all that time there had never been an election they had lost.

Messenger

I wrote my name
Amongst the stars
Alongside yours;
Together we traced
Our fingers
Through space, between
Planets and moons
Suns and asteroids,
Amazed by the intricate details
Of those impossible places
Never touched by man.
I dispersed my being
Across the sky,
Every flaw exposed
And hoped
That when you looked up
At that sky,
You would see my message;
Wherever we laid our heads,
Whatever misery
Our separation brought us,
I was still with you.


© Laura Marie Clark

Excerpt from the book “City Of The World”

Please visit my author page and share my adventure:
http://www.ctupublishinggroup.com/laura-marie-clark.html

VALHALLA RISING – Part 3

You can catch up with Valhalla Rising using the links below:

VALHALLA RISING – Prologue

VALHALLA RISING – Part 1

VALHALLA RISING – Part 2


The newsreader was a tall, round virn with a chubby face and dark red hair. His skin was covered in light and dark brown scales, and his eyes were yellow slits with speckles of pale green. When he opened his mouth, a pink forked tongue slithered out and flickered across his dry green lips. The shape of his head suggested some non-virn blood, although exactly how much was debatable. It was evidently not enough to prevent him from reading the news on telecommunication screens to snobby full-bloods.

What was it, four generations and the blood no longer mattered? Maureen thought that was the virn view. His great-great-grandfather could have been non-virn, but the newsreader was far enough removed from that ancestry that it could no longer be considered a smear on him.

His cardigan was a deep shade of green. He wore a white shirt with a green neckerchief that matched the cardigan. He was seated at a circular desk, with only an electronic prompter and a cup of something hot and smoking visible to the audience. He leaned forward on the desk, rested on his elbows, a tradition for virn newscasters during important segments as a representation of the gravity of the subject being discussed.

It contrasted human news broadcasts, which made serious attempts at professionalism. Humans hid their prompters behind cameras and expected their newsreaders to wear suits, as well as to sit up properly. Maureen leaned forwards, towards the screen, as the virn leaned closer to her. The camera panned around the newsroom, before settling back on the newsreader.

Morning,’ he said in a dry voice (the only virn Maureen had ever heard say “good morning” was Starg, and for some reason he had found the phrase amusing), ‘and welcome. I am Vex Shaltot Hal, and this is Virn Empire News.’

It was one of those broadcasting networks that all humans knew was intrinsically against them no matter what they did. Typically, anything with “Virn Empire” in the name was pro-virn and anti-everyone-else. Virn Empire News was an outrageous and outspoken network, which had individual channels dedicated to major populated planets throughout the Empire. Something about it drew in a lot of lower-class virn viewers.

As far as Maureen was concerned, Virn Empire News and other similar agencies were power tools used by the major players in the Empire to control virn minds. It was a difficult argument to approach a virn with, though.

The main headline today, which everybody is talking about: the attempted bombing by two humans of a high-class shopping centre in Piku. The culprits, one male and one female, forced their way into the shopping centre, where they threatened and frightened shoppers by brandishing blasters. Thanks to the bravery of two bold virn security guards, the humans were disarmed and have been successfully transported to a nearby prison-planet.

Maureen drummed her fingers against the arm of the bench she was sitting on. The two kids were dead, but everyday virn could believe they had been shipped away to some prison-planet, because in a couple of months’ time nobody would care.

Today, Virn Empire News is tracing the aggression of humankind back to its origins. This is an insight into the fifty-year history of the human camp of Valhalla, and how the humans who our great Empire saved from imminent destruction turned against their generous virn saviours.

Maureen scoffed. The virn may have saved a handful of humans and allowed them to settle in a camp on Montague 7, but that was about the only thing they had ever done for humans. Maureen’s daughter, Christine, who was slumped on the bench next to her, rubbed a finger against her forehead and sighed.

‘Do we have to watch this?’ she asked her mother.

Maureen shot a side-glance at her daughter. Christine was in her mid-twenties, with dark hair and eyes. She had inherited her mother’s infamous scowl.

‘I’m not forcing you to watch it,’ Maureen replied, ‘but I need to. I shouldn’t even get this channel; I had to grease a couple of palms to get these new networks set up on our telecommunication system. And I’ve got to watch it. I need to know what they’re saying about us, every single lie and piece of propaganda. If I don’t know what we’re supposed to be fighting, then I won’t know how to protect people from it.’

Christine did not reply. She pushed herself up off the bench and patted her mother on the back, before walking out of the container. The door swung loudly shut behind her. Maureen kept her eyes on the telecommunication screen. The newsreader had disappeared, and a cartoon-like image of a blue-green planet had replaced him. It began to shift into an image of a cartoon-like forest, and an overhead voice provided the story.

The human species originated on Sol 3, or “Earth”, as the humans call it. Humans developed from a species known as apes. A primitive, backwards race, humans built enormous, all-consuming devices that destroyed their planet and polluted their environment. They fought wars that caused further damage to Sol 3, and in their desperation, they pleaded for some kind, considerate species to come to their rescue. The great Virn Empire heard their please and came to their assistance.’

Maureen watched as the little cartoon humans marched onto a cartoon virn spacecraft. This was not what had happened as she had been taught it. Yes, there had been occasions when the humans of Earth had waged terrible wars, seemingly unable to listen to the common-sense folks who had pointed out that everything would be better if they were all just nice to each other. There had also been times when the humans on Earth had done everything possible to pollute their environment – and not always unintentionally.

However, in the decade preceding the arrival of the virn, serious attempts had been made to correct these errors. Perhaps if there had been more time, or a few more common-sense people, they might have been successful. Instead, the seas had risen, and people had been pushed further and further inland.

This had resulted in too many humans and too little food. Diseases had spread, people had starved, and leaders had been powerless to do anything to save many of them. Then the virn ships had arrived, the first contact ever between humans and a non-human species – hence why the idea of them pleading for another species to save them was nonsense. One of the captains of the virn spacecraft had then made humanity an offer.

It had not been a good offer.

The captain had suggested that he be allowed to select a certain number of humans and transport them to another planet, where they would be able to establish a colony. It had not been a large number of humans compared to the amount of those left on the Earth, but it had been their best – and their only – chance to save the species.

Maureen’s parents had been lucky enough to get selected. She had been one of the first humans born in Valhalla, and so had received the best descriptions of Earth from people who had actually been born and raised on the planet. The children of Valhalla did not get that same privilege much anymore, and instead had to rely on how the planet and its people were portrayed in the media. There were very few who had been born on the Earth left.

The broadcast continued on whilst her mind had been working. The cartoon virn spacecraft, packed with cartoon humans, had now made to a cartoon version of Montague 7 and landed.

The rescued humans were given the land which is now called Valhalla, designed as a place of permanent residence for them.’ That was another lie, and not one that Maureen expected the majority of Virn Empire News viewers to recognise. ‘However, over the years they have demanded increasingly more from the surrounding regions, and have turned the land that was gifted to them out of the good of the Empire – and using virn tax money – into a wasteland.

It has been fifty years, and still humans refuse to accept virn culture, favouring their own backwards beliefs and practices. They have chosen to make themselves easily distinguishable from virn through what they wear, how they speak, and how they behave. They continue to speak their own language, to interact only with their own kind, and to teach the religious drivel of Sol 3 in our Empire. They do everything they can to avoid work and are only happy when the virn taxpayer is giving them money to fund their laziness.’

Maureen pushed her palm against her lips to prevent herself from swearing loudly at the screen. No good would come from reacting negatively to this slander: it was designed to piss everyone who heard it off. The people of Valhalla were incredibly hardworking. They practiced old Earth beliefs because that was the only major part of their heritage they had left. Outlets like Virn Empire News were all too supportive of the virn government using tax money to pay for their next war, but providing aid to give young humans a better chance in life? That was just ridiculous!

Perhaps if humans were freer to leave the camp – perhaps if they did not need written permission just to walk around virn cities – perhaps if they did not face racism and hatred every time they ventured beyond the walls and borders of Valhalla –

Perhaps if the factories built into the walls were decent places to work – perhaps if humans were paid the same basic rate as virn – perhaps –

Perhaps.

The reporter was back on the screen in his cardigan and neckerchief. He was in the middle of something, probably a diatribe on why humans were the worst scroungers the virn had ever had the misfortune to come across.

… not the biggest problem concerning human integration into our society. What really holds these people back is their inability to cooperate with us. The human governing body was designed primarily to encourage humans to work with virn. However, humans have always had a different idea. Today, Virn Empire News can exclusively announce that it has discovered the human government’s real intentions!

Maureen sighed and got up off the bench to pour herself a glass of something strong. What possible “real intentions” of a poor minority within society could be so dramatically damning?

A government which is really controlled by the corrupt Liaison, Maureen Bradshaw!

It was good that Maureen had not taken a glass out of the cupboard before her name was mentioned. Glasses were hard to come by in Valhalla, and she hated drinking out of plastic cups. She would have had one glass fewer if she had made it to the cupboard any faster.

Her own face was on the screen. The photograph was, as she expected, less than flattering. It looked as though a sneaky journalist may have snapped it when she had been halfway through a bite of something spicy. She felt her surprise transform into rage as the newsreader continued.

Maureen Bradshaw is not the first human to adopt the informal title of Liaison. Neither is she the first who wishes to destroy the virn system of rights and laws and replace it with systems that favour humans. And she is certainly not the first who has tried to force our government to cave in to her outrageous demands.’

The newsreader paused for long enough for Maureen to realised that the noise she could hear was her own teeth grinding together. She was not a violent woman. The virn media had tried to knock her back before, and she had overcome it. Zuwrath had never allowed them this much freedom before, though.

It was almost as though the Controller had said “make up whatever bullshit you like” and the broadcaster had done exactly that. This was ridiculous. The virn had an empire, a damn empire. All humans had was too many of them squashed into too little space. What in the hell of it were these virn afraid of?

What Maureen Bradshaw has that gives her power is her privilege amongst humans. Her parents were some of those rescued from Sol 3, and she was born a mere ten months after the arrival in Valhalla. As she was born on Montague 7, she possesses the rights of a native, but born and raised in the human camp she has been educated to honour human culture over virn culture. Her ungrateful parents and tutors taught her to manipulate and use her position to influence the younger generations of humans and force our government into difficult situations.

This is why, two decades after the arrival of humans on our planet, our government wisely chose to distinguish between the rights of virn and the rights of humans born on virn-owned soil. Maureen Bradshaw, however, still has rights under the old laws. She uses this privilege and her position as Liaison to claim tax money from honest, hard-working virn men and women, which she gives to her own lazy people. She works from within our own system to eradicate our way of life and replace it with humans and their primitive ways.’

Maureen raised her arm and swung it at the elbow, around to the right until the telecommunicator turned off. She was motionless for a while, then folded her arms across her chest, wondering how anyone could consider it acceptable to tell such lies.

This was all Zuwrath’s doing, she was sure of it.

~

The human government was a small organisation with a big name. Most of the work it did was carried out by three men: Luther Spinney, an optimistic old gentlemen who was spokesperson and did what he could to keep everybody else’s spirits up; Anthony Russell, who was more of a realist, and knew more about the virn legal system than any other human; and Jakub Starosta, who was well-versed in virnin, both written and spoken, as well as virn culture and history.

Together, they formed a front against almost impossible odds. Anybody who saw them would have said that there was little difference between the three of them politically, although Maureen knew this was only because of the situation humanity was in. When they could do something, they did it without a fuss, and they did it that way because the choices they had to make were simple. Feed people or let them starve. House them or leave them to sleep outside. There were no big moral questions to face and bickering was a waste of time.

Starosta was naturally conservative. Spinney, ever able to see the good in the world, was a liberal. Russell did his best to sit somewhere in the middle of the other two, but he was fairly left-leaning when he got the chance to let his ideas shine. He had seen an opportunity in the beginning to create a completely new society founded on equality, but the virn government had stepped in the way of his dreams. Left-wing politics were not popular in the Empire.

Unfortunately, the three of them seemed to be increasingly left powerless. They had little ability to create jobs, generation income, or improve everyday life in Valhalla, and were unable to act without official permission from the Controller. They spent most of their time trying to remind humans of the importance of patience and resilience, and squashing the uncommon violent reactions from humans towards virn which only served to create them further trouble.

This was not easy. Young humans had a documented issue with virn authority and being put in their place by the Empire’s officers. When they were treated like second-class citizens and criticised daily, people tended to react negatively.

Spinney summoned Maureen a couple of hours after the false story had been featured on Virn Empire News. She knew that he did not have access to the channel, but news spread fast across the media. He had probably heard half the story from someone else who had heard it from someone else, but he would know enough. She could have sat around in her container and guessed what they were going to say to her without answering the summon, but that would not help anybody. Maureen could not allow the media to win by hiding away and doing nothing: she had to hold her head up high and remain strong.

The three men worked in a large container, five times the size of a standard container, which was divided into sections by fold-up plastic walls. Maureen walked inside, past the secretaries working at cheap typing systems, where they were preparing speeches, writing letters, or carrying out research. There were six, two for each governor (a number Zuwrath had dictated), all young men and women in neat suits, who hoped one day to become politicians to improve the human standard of living. In a corner of the container, a small group of other humans in similar suits usually sat and debated issues to be presented to the three governors; this time, as Maureen passed them, they fell annoyingly silent.

Fingers stopped flying over keyboards as she walked on. Eyes flickered in her direction and then away in embarrassment. Maureen pretended not to notice the stillness in the room. These people knew her, they knew what she had dedicated her life to achieve. It was the same ridiculous dream that they wanted to dedicate their own lives to.

Most of the jokes about her that circulated in the media tended to blow over after a couple of weeks, and then things would return to normal. This felt different.

She walked around the plastic wall that separated the three governors from the others, and approached them without hesitation.

‘Ah! It’s good to see you, Maureen,’ Russell said when he saw her. His voice was solemn, and she got the immediate impression that none of them felt it was good to see her at all. Sometimes, to her utmost surprise, Maureen found herself appreciating the way that Zuwrath and Starg spoke to her: at least neither of them pretended to like her. There was also no need for Maureen to pretend to like them. ‘Please, do make yourself comfortable.’

Maureen almost refused, but then she thought better of it and took the plastic chair that Russell was indicating to. It was cold enough that she could feel it through her clothes. She tried to figure out what kind of attitude it was best to display as she waited for one of them to speak.

‘Have you seen the news?’ Starosta asked, as though there was some chance she might have missed it. Her communicator had practically blown up about half an hour after she had turned off the broadcast and had not stopped since then; Maureen had become so bored of new messages that she had muted the damn thing.

Starosta was one of the oldest men in Valhalla and Maureen did not wish to insult an Earth-born at that moment. Not after all that talk of her so-called privilege.

‘I heard about it,’ she replied.

‘Which channel did you hear about?’

Maureen had lost count of how many channels she had heard about. As soon as the story had finished on Virn Empire News, it had been rebroadcast on just about every other virn channel Montague 7 had.

‘I heard it started on Empire News,’ she replied, forcing her face to remain calm.

‘Yes, that’s right,’ Russell said. ‘I reckon it’s been shown on about two hundred channels so far. And rehashed on communicators, too. Probably be in print tomorrow.’

‘That’s an awful lot of news agencies in a very short space of time.’

‘Yes, it is. Not all of them are as extreme as Empire is, either. A few of them have been quite good at reporting the conditions here in little segments. That’s in the past, though. I don’t think I need to tell you that it’ll only get worse.’

Maureen coughed to clear a lump in her throat. She looked from one solemn face to the next as she tried to silently reach out to each of the men in turn.

‘Do you think many virn will believe the story?’ she asked. She deliberately did not add about me to the end of her sentence. It was not a question she needed any of them to answer, but she did not want to appear as though she knew more than any of them. She liked her job and being smart about it was not going to make them any happier.

‘Many,’ Starosta confirmed with a node.

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘me too.’

There was a moment of silence that hung in the air between them, the dull sound of conversation and typing on the other side of the plastic screen seemingly so distant. Maureen felt as though the four of them were holding a collective breath.

‘Look here, Maureen,’ Spinney said, leaning towards her in his seat. It was the first time he had acknowledged her presence since she had entered the container. ‘Don’t get us wrong. We don’t want to get rid of you. You’re good at your job, the best Liaison any of us have ever known.’ Russell and Starosta nodded in agreement.

‘You’ve done a lot over the past decade, and you’re popular here in Valhalla. This incident in the shopping mall, though … and then these reports a few days later … it doesn’t look good. People don’t tend to react well to things like this. The more people who get frustrated, the more people who will want to do something in response to the sanctions and the false stories in the media, and so the worse our situation will get. The loss of all those containers … well, I honestly don’t know how much more this camp can take before something goes horribly wrong.’

‘I realise this. Luther, I see these things first-hand every day. Sometimes I’m the first one there. After a while, I started to notice little indicators that tempers might erupt.’

‘Then you appreciate precisely how difficult this situation is for us.’

Maureen hesitated. She wanted to reply that no, she did not, because she thought this situation was perfectly straightforward and that, if she had been in Spinney’s situation, she could have fired the Liaison and told Virn Empire News that if they wanted to report on humans, they were welcome to come to Valhalla and do it properly. There would be no need for cartoon drawings or dodgy photographs then. She would have arranged interviews with as many news agencies as would have her, and she would have gotten the real stories out there, somehow. She would have taken full advantage of the fact that Zuwrath had allowed these channels to broadcast anything they wanted about humans and used the more liberal channels to generate a backlash of pro-human propaganda.

Spinney did not know about Zuwrath granting them permission, though. He likely suspected it, but he had not seen the list that Maureen had. He did not know how much there was still to come.

‘Yes,’ she said eventually. ‘I appreciate and understand.’

Russell glared at her from Spinney’s left, but Maureen did not react and kept her eyes fixed firmly on Spinney.

‘Good. Then you’ll also understand that, if you do become a focus point of an anti-human campaign, then regrettably … we’ll have no choice but to find your replacement.’

Maureen’s jaw tightened, and she adjusted her focus to the bald patch on the top of Spinney’s head. She wondered who amongst the suits in the other room was eyeing up her job.

‘It won’t go that far,’ she told him. ‘I can promise you that. I won’t give them the pleasure of using me as a tool to bring down the rest of our people. If it gets that far then I’ll see myself out.’

‘We sincerely hope it doesn’t have to come to that,’ Russell said.

‘As do I.’

VALHALLA RISING – Part 2

Need to catch up before you read this part?

VALHALLA RISING – Prologue

VALHALLA RISING – Part 1


Starg was short for a virn, which still put him at over six feet in height. He limped on his right leg, an old battle wound, and he stooped a little as he walked, making him look shorter than he was. It was his responsibility to oversee peace in the Piku region, which shared a border with the camp of Valhalla.

He had a proud military background. Once he had spent his maximum permitted time in the virn army – thirty years, unless one’s military feats were considered so great that it benefitted the Empire for the soldier to stay – he had been offered his current position, which he had been in for twelve years. Starg was no longer a military officer, and he did not have as much authority as the local security forces, but what he did have was sway over the relationship between the virn in Piku and the humans in Valhalla.

His official title was Keeper of the Peace, but whenever Starg was asked to describe his job he referred to himself as Receiver of the Nuisance. When he was not dealing with his own people, some of whom did everything they possibly could to start fights with humans, then he had to handle the humans themselves. He did not like humans, at least as a rule, and he liked associating with them even less. One thing he despised more than humans, or at least on par with his hatred of them, however, were virn who deliberately provoked trouble between the two species. That was not because he felt particularly sorry for the way that humans were forced to live by the Empire – he had, after all, fought in many battles for the Empire – but instead because when virn provoked humans, humans tended to respond negatively.

For this reason, Starg did everything he could to keep the humans content within the walls of the camp.

Most of the incidents Starg had to deal with were relatively minor. Somebody had offended somebody else, somebody had insulted somebody else’s cultural heritage, somebody had started a fight with somebody else, and so on. Occasionally, though, something happened that shook Starg and his team from brow to tail.

The near-bombing of the shopping centre was one of the most extreme cases he had ever had to deal with. It had caused a great deal of panic and Starg was at something of a loss. Bombings happened every now and then, and humans were by no means the only rehoused species to attack the virn because they felt their lives were unfair. What was so alarming was how far the two humans had managed to get into Piku in order to threaten the richest part of the district. Nobody had stopped them; only a few had spotted them. Somehow, they had managed to build themselves a couple of rudimentary devices and walk straight into one of the most prestigious malls on the planet.

And these had been young humans, not yet adults. Imagine what they might have been able to do if they had been fully grown!

Zuwrath had begun hassling Starg for information on what he was going to do to punish the camp from the moment he had heard about the near-miss. A message from Maureen Bradshaw a short while later had confirmed that she was just as concerned about the safety of her people and the negative impact of this nastiness.

“It’s not something that the 99.9% of humans do, or even consider doing,” she had put in her message. Starg knew that. He was hardly going to deal out blame unconditionally, even though he thought so little of humans. Of course, he knew what Zuwrath’s response to that would be without having to hear it: some humans did do it, which was apparently enough to warrant sanctions upon them all.

That was why Starg had visited Valhalla after the incident, only to discover that Maureen had been summoned to Louch to meet with Zuwrath. That was typical of Zuwrath: she never thought Starg was important enough to know what was going on. He was the Keeper of the Peace in Piku, and yet she had not even bothered to invite him to attend: all she cared about was what he was going to do to make other humans suffer for this. The Controller was always going over his head, and Starg was not the only official on Montague 7 who took issue with her.

The government in Valhalla offered him a place to stay and wait for Maureen’s return. It was a small, stuffy container that was more like a tin box than a building. Starg was convinced that he had been left in there on his own to get a tiny taste of what humans experienced every single day. As the hours passed, he increasingly considered getting up and leaving without a backwards glance.

He knew that humans lived in poor conditions, but that did not mean he had to live it himself. After all, they never helped themselves. The cold silence built up around him until he could stand it no longer.

His need to go to the lavatory was the final straw. Starg was not as young as he had once been. He grunted and lifted himself off the metal bench he had been uncomfortably squatting on, stomping as he walked out of the container and away from the camp. He relieved himself where nobody could see, then climbed into his rover and began the long journey back to his office.

~

Maureen spotted Starg’s rover from a distance. She recognised it and called for the shuttle driver to pull over. The shuttle only stopped for long enough for her to jump off, and she watched it move away before she waved down the rover. Starg saw her and pulled over by the side of the road. He climbed out of his rover and walked towards her.

They shook hands in the way that humans typically greeted one another.

I hope I find you well, Starg,’ Maureen said.

I visited the camp to look for you,’ Starg replied. He limped over to the kerb and swung himself down into a sitting position. Maureen walked with him and sat down next to him, aware that Starg would not appreciate it if he had to strain his neck to look up at her. The Keeper of the Peace in Piku would not be made to feel uncomfortable at the Liaison’s expense. ‘Zuwrath failed to tell me about your little meeting – I suppose she thinks I’m not important enough to be included in a discussion concerning the affairs of my own region. I believed I would catch you in Valhalla.

Where you would’ve had me at a disadvantage, surprising me in my own home,’ Maureen commented. Starg was easier for her to talk to than Zuwrath, and Maureen had a lot of experience speaking with him. They had no reasons to quarrel; they were both just trying to do what they thought was best. Zuwrath was direct and final, but Starg recognised the importance of treating humans with decency. He was not very good at it, but he tried.

Perhaps so. It wasn’t just the shopping mall I wanted to see you about. I have some information I doubt the Controller would want to share. Valhalla seemed like the best place to do it.’

Maureen rest her elbows on her knees and put her chin in her hands. She leaned towards Starg. She knew what he wanted from her: the exchange of information was never a one-way process with men like Starg. ‘We only discussed the repercussions of the bomb attempt. Nothing to do with your people, and I suppose by not inviting you along Zuwrath thought she could make it doubly hard by getting you to punish us, as well.’ Maureen paused; the look that crossed Starg’s face revealed that she was correct. ‘She’s refusing to deliver two thousand containers that we’ve been long waiting for. Think of all those humans back there living in tents, waiting for the day they can get a safer, stronger, weather-resistance home. That’s two thousand families who won’t get what they were promised all those years ago.’

Starg grimaced. ‘I have seen some of those tents,’ he said, ‘and I have smelt them, as well. It’s a poor life. Perhaps if those who lived in them worked a little harder, or –

Oh, don’t start that, Starg, I’ve had enough nonsense from Zuwrath already. You know those stories about humans being lazy aren’t true. Every species, every nation, every community has its own examples of those who want a free ride, but that doesn’t mean you can label all of those people in that way.’

Well … that’s how things are, I suppose. That’s how humans look from the outside.

Maureen clenched a fist and reminded herself of the importance of patience. She nodded her head, and waited for a few moments for Starg to speak again. When he did not, she had to push him.

There’s something you want to tell me?

There is.’ Starg looked up and down the road as though checking that it was clear before he continued. ‘Zuwrath’s office sent some information out to the Keepers of the Peace. I know you’re closer to me than to any of the other Keepers. In another life, we might even have been allies.

Starg. I’m welling up with tears.’

I’m serious, Maureen. Though … if you don’t want to know …

Oh no, no, I’ll hear you out. I don’t mean to be snappy, I don’t, it’s just these meetings with Zuwrath … they make me so frustrated! I find myself making smart remarks to everyone when I get home. So, please, do go on.’

Indeed, she expects a lot while giving nothing in return. Which is, of course, what she’s done this time. Zuwrath’s given virn news broadcasters more powers to discuss the “Human Issue”, as they’ve been instructed to call it. There’s a list of specific broadcasters who have her permission – she’s not exactly tried to conceal what her intentions are.’

Starg reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a slip of paper, which he passed to Maureen.

She’s been watching my communications for a while now,’ he explained. ‘She can’t watch a pen, though.’

Maureen turned the folded slip of paper over in her hands and opened it, her eyes scanning down the list of broadcasters. A sickening feeling rose from the bottom of her stomach and filled her mouth with the bitter taste of bile.

They’re all extreme, virn-first, broadcasters,’ she commented.

And they’re all anti-human immigration.’

Yes, yes, I can see … listen, Starg, do you want this back?’

No! I want it destroyed. Might fall into the wrong hands if not – I’m sure somehow Zuwrath will be able to trace the handwriting back to me. Actually, I brought my light.’

Very well. Give me a moment to memorise what I can, then.’ Maureen looked down at the list again. There were names of news broadcasters in print and digital media, from every region of the planet and even some off-world agencies. One of them broadcast empire-wide. When she could not bear to look at it any longer, she passed the paper back to Starg, who set it alight with the flick of his lighter. He dropped it on the road and they watched it burn until there was only a pile of ash.

Those channels will not attempt to discuss the Human Issue fairly. Neither will the papers. Digital media will love it – communicators will be filled with anti-human stories every minute of every day. Virn don’t need the truth, providing they have enough news stories saying the same thing. The more attacks – or attempted attacks – there are, the more the anti-human sentiment will grow. This will only add more to your troubles. That is what I wanted to tell you.’

Finished, Starg stood and dusted himself down, then made his way to his rover. Maureen followed him. Before he climbed inside, he spun around to face her.

Do you want something more?’ he asked.

Only to say thank you for warning me about this,’ Maureen replied. ‘Sincerely, Starg. I mean it. Thank you.’

Hmm.’ The Keeper of the Peace of Piku scratched his chin, and Maureen was not sure whether he believed her or not. ‘You think that things are going to change?’

Things are changing every day. The only thing we can do is try to point them in the right direction, so that one day, humans will wake up in a better world.

Well, I hope you’ve got a plan to make that happen,’ Starg said. ‘For the record, my right direction is a little different to yours. I see your people’s pain, and I acknowledge it, but I’m unconvinced by the arguments for full human integration. There’s not much need for it. What we do need is a world where virn are told the truth about humans, rather than this slander.’

I think our truths may be somewhat different, too.’

Whatever do you mean?’

Maureen brushed a stray hair out of her eyes and blinked slowly at Starg. ‘Do you think I’m worth the same as a virn woman, Starg? Are any women of any of the species that so enjoy the pleasure of living beneath the banners of the wonderful Virn Empire worth as much as a virn woman?’

Starg appeared to be visibly uncomfortable. He gripped the handle on the door of his rover and flexed his fingers. He could not look Maureen in the eyes.

I fought for the Virn Empire,’ he reminded her.

I know that. You won’t hear a word against it – but I wasn’t attacking the Empire.’

There was a long pause, which Maureen enjoyed more than she was willing to admit.

You’re a good woman, for a human,’ Starg said at last.

Like I said, I think our truths may be somewhat different.’

Starg shook himself with a huff and turned to climb into the rover. Maureen watched him disappear at the next junction, heading back to Piku, before she set off walking in the opposite direction, back to Valhalla.

Broken Down

She stopped
In the middle of a three-lane motorway;
I pulled her over,
Took her to a pair of dodgy
Repairmen on the corner
Who charged me over the odds;
I watched them
As they took her apart
And examined her,
Discussing the repairs with one another,
Her flaws and how to fix them,
Right in front of her
Without a single thought
For her feelings.
She stood there and took it all,
Every harsh word
Every snide comment
Every rude insult;
She acted as though she could not hear them
And remained still and silent.
She knew they were unaware,
Or that they did not care
Of how their words
Would make her feel –
And she could fool them,
But she could not fool me;
I paid them with reluctance,
Grasping for the notes
That slipped through my fingers
And could hear her
Questioning her value
As the money was transferred.

I bit the cheeks inside my mouth,
Forced myself to smile:
She did not need to know
That I had forked out too much
For her repairs;
I took her home
To console her there,
Let her cry out her frustration
With a low rumble
Over their cruel conversation about her.
Their words had pierced her deep
And she never went
The same again.


© Laura Marie Clark

Excerpt from the book “City Of The World”

Please visit my author page and share my adventure:
http://www.ctupublishinggroup.com/laura-marie-clark.html

VALHALLA RISING – Part 1

Check out the prologue here:

VALHALLA RISING – Prologue


Maureen Bradshaw was a middle-aged human woman of around average height. She was thin and underweight, like all humans who reached her age. She often wore a sceptical frown, which had become her customary appearance in the media. The frown formed three long age lines across her forehead and made her look worn.

She was a prominent figure in both human and virn news, because she had a unique job that required her involvement in both worlds: Maureen was the official Liaison between humans and the virn, the rulers of Montague 7.

Most humans viewed this as a special, even in some instances an honourable position. They thought there was something prestigious about attending meetings with senior virn figures and giving interviews to the media. As the longest serving Liaison in the history of human-virn relations, Maureen knew just how wrong they were.

Yes, it was true that she had permission to leave Valhalla, the camp the virn had graciously (as it was officially documented) allowed humans to settle, whenever she wished. It was possible for other humans to get that same permission, but the virn had made this a long and difficult process for the average human, so many of them had never seen the world beyond the walls. A handful left the camp illegally every month or so, but they were always rounded up by the virn authorities and dragged back to Valhalla. The escape and recapture would always be widely reported in the virn media, and then a few days of uproar about the breach in virn security would occur before the whole thing would be forgotten about.

It was also true that Maureen got the opportunity to practice her virnin frequently in the presence of real virn, rather than the artificial holo-programs that were used in classrooms. They had pre-set conversations installed on them that became dry rather quickly. Meeting real virn outside of Valhalla had given Maureen a first-hand look at virn life, and how different it was from the life they had granted humans in their so-called generosity.

Those were the parts of her job that Maureen was asked to talk about the most. They were only the barest elements of her work, and if anything, they only served to reinforce her belief that humans were deliberately kept out of Valhalla in order to prevent their integration into virn society. It was not the first time that the Virn Empire had repressed a species to serve their own ends: they had a history of doing so with lesser-developed species, following the conquest of their planets.

This was not something virn history books discussed, but there were plenty who were willing to discuss how they had been treated if the price was right.

Some humans liked to point out that the virn were not exactly what they would consider moral. The virn governing body on Montague 7 did things because those things benefitted their own people. They had created an entirely separate branch of government for humans, led by humans, to shift the responsibility of human affairs off their shoulders. The human government needed the permission of the virn government to do anything or pass any legislation, which meant it achieved very little, but it did what it was intended to do because the human government was there to take the blame.

Maureen reported to the human government, but she did not like to get too involved with it. She knew it was a puppet, and that was a part of her job she greatly disliked.

The absolute worst part of her job, however, was meeting with the virn Controller, who was essentially Maureen’s counterpart. The Controller, a proud virn woman named Zuwrath, had next to no interest in bettering the human position and seemed to take great joy in making Maureen’s life as difficult as possible. Zuwrath refused to budge on most issues, although she expected Maureen to jump through hoops to accommodate her demands. The virn had the upper hand in their relationship and she liked to remind the human of that. All things considered, Zuwrath was perfect for her job.

Whenever Maureen had to deliver Zuwrath’s new demands to the human government – which then moved to put them into action without debate – there was outrage in Valhalla. The human media broadcasted ugly little cartoons of Maureen trying and failing to persuade an anti-human Zuwrath to show a little compassion. The media loved to depict Maureen, and used her image at every opportunity.

Although Zuwrath’s stubbornness was well-known, there had been a few occasions when Maureen had been able to persuade the Controller to do something positive for humans. This was not a case of changing the virn’s mind, because that was impossible: it was about persuading the Controller that a little addition would do a great deal for virn as well as for humans.

Maureen was a symbol of achievement against insurmountable odds (when the media was not out to get her), and that was the kind of role model young humans needed.

Of course, Zuwrath was not the only virn Maureen had a working relationship with. Others could be more reasonable, at least when compared to the Controller. Aside from Zuwrath, the most important were the leaders of the thirty-eight regions on the planet, each the head of a government sector ruling over a part of Montague 7. A handful of them had been nice enough in the past to express their wishes that humans and virn might one day live together in peace, but had also felt concern that it might cause trouble if humans were integrated into their region.

Maureen was used to being told that she was welcome, and that her people were welcome too … just not here. This was at least an acknowledgement that human life was incredibly hard. The harder it got, the more disgruntled humans became – especially the youth, who could cause Maureen a great deal of trouble. When they rebelled, Zuwrath placed harsher demands on the human government, and the average virn man and woman became a little more concerned about the presence of humans on their planet. This meant that human life got harder. It was a vicious cycle that Maureen had been fighting for far longer than the ten years she had spent as Liaison.

She had to believe it was possible for things to change, even if that change took generations. Maureen did not expect to see virn treat humans as their equals in her own lifetime.

The Liaison had heard about the two human teens who had tried to bomb some high-end virn mall, and so she had waited for Zuwrath’s call. It had not been a long wait. Zuwrath had decided against the standard digital communication to summon Maureen, and had instead decided to send two virn officers to Valhalla to fetch her instead. Maureen suspected that their presence was designed to frighten humans into obedience, lest anybody might feel inspired by the two silly children.

They had buzzed her when they had arrived at the gates of the camp, and Maureen had gone to them laughing loudly at their unwillingness to enter. Zuwrath had likely warned them not to: there had been a few incidents in the past when her underlings had gone home and shared the reality of how humans lived with the virn media. The Controller did not need a surge of sympathetic interest in the human cause.

The masked officers escorted Maureen to Zuwrath’s headquarters in an unmarked vehicle. Valhalla was not officially located in any region, but Zuwrath worked in Louch, the region to the north of the camp. There, the Controller busied herself night and day to keep humans contained within their own little world and prevent their involvement in wider virn society. Maureen had stressed to Zuwrath on many occasions that their separation and segregation only served to increase the mutual dislike the two species shared for one another, but Zuwrath did not seem to care. It did not matter whether the average virn held the correct opinion of humans, so long as the virn remained better off.

When Maureen entered Zuwrath’s office, the Controller’s secretary greeted her. He was a young, somewhat jumpy virn on an apprenticeship. His squeaky voice put him at under twenty years of age, and probably still in the early stages of puberty. When it broke, it would no doubt match his scaly hide and narrow eyes far better than the squeak did. The virn life cycle was on average, and based on their own calendar, forty years longer than that of humans – more, when one considered the life expectancy in Valhalla. This meant that virn children enjoyed a long and happy youth and were not officially classed as adults until they reached twenty-five years of age. Puberty did not start until the late teens at the earliest.

Wait here,’ the secretary told her. He entered Zuwrath’s private room to see if she was ready, then came back out a moment later. ‘Take a seat.’

Maureen knew that Zuwrath was more than ready to see her. The Controller just liked to agitate her by making her sit down and wait in the corner of her office every single time she was summoned. Maureen did her best to ignore the Controller’s deliberate manipulation: she had a great deal of practice when it came to Zuwrath.

She counted twenty-three minutes before Zuwrath poked her scaly head around the door of her private room and instructed Maureen to come in. The Liaison obeyed, as politely as she could.

Zuwrath’s office was a large room decorated with spectacular paintings, all by famous virn artists who were now long deceased. It was the Controller’s private art collection, but Maureen had always thought that the paintings, with their elegant swirls, sharp angles, and earthly colours, paled in comparison to Zuwrath herself.

The Controller was tall, a full head and shoulder over Maureen, with wide-set eyes and dry, scaled skin. The colour of her scales – or her armour, as Zuwrath had once referred to them – indicated her family’s racial purity: Zuwrath was from one hundred percent virn stock, and she liked to make sure that everyone around her knew that. There was no interspecies breeding in her ancestry. Her tail stuck out the back of her clothes, long and strong. She was pure enough that she could regrow it if she ever lost it.

She wore clothes of brown and moss green, which matched her scales. Every inch of her body, apart from her tail, head, and neck, was clothed. The body suit zipped up on Zuwrath’s left side and gave her enough freedom that she could swell up if she wanted to threaten or needed to defend herself. The spines down her back always looked sharp, but the thick material she wore protected others from cutting themselves if they touched her. Maureen had never seen Zuwrath in a mask; the Controller was too important to wear one.

Sit down,’ Zuwrath instructed, waving a gloved hand at the chair on the opposite side of her desk. Maureen took the seat as Zuwrath also sat. The Controller straightened a few papers on her desk with an amused smile, because she finally turned her thin yellow eyes on the other woman. ‘Maureen,’ she said, ‘let’s not waste our time here.’

With all due respect, Controller,’ Maureen replied, forcing herself to sound as though she did still have some respect left for the other woman after the long wait, ‘I know what this is about, and it’s a complicated issue. This attempted bombing is only one in a long list of incidents. It’s more than a matter of what’s right and what’s wrong or what can be done in response to this specifically – it all comes down to the human situation.’

The human situation is that your people destroyed your own planet and my people gave some of them a place to settle and –’ Zuwrath screwed up her face in repulsion, her eyes narrowing until only the thin yellow slits of her pupils remained visible, ‘– repopulate.’

And we are starting to repopulate. Which we are grateful for. There are now far too many of us for humans to live comfortably in Valhalla. We need more space, better facilities, access to clean water and –

It sounds like this has happened at a very convenient time.’

Maureen fell silent. There was an awkward pause in which the Liaison and the Controller stared across the table at one another. As always, Maureen was the one who backed down. That was the way all of their standoffs ended; Zuwrath would have been content to sit there and stare at Maureen forever, barely blinking, but Maureen wanted to get to the matter in hand. The virn’s body had a higher tolerance to a lack of food, water, and bathroom facilities than Maureen’s, and her priorities were seemingly to be as difficult as possible.

In addition, Zuwrath knew Maureen too well. She knew that Maureen could not accept violence, because Maureen had personally led a campaign several years previously against the militarisation of human anger. The Liaison had been at the forefront of converting many young humans who had been physically aggressive towards virn to a peaceful form of protest instead.

Yes, they continued to protest, and they still irritated the Controller, but the virn media did not pay that much attention to humans who protested in a reasonable way. That would have put humans in a far too favourable light – but at least it was not negative attention.

You know I didn’t have anything to do with this, Zuwrath. You know it’s a result of how desperate young humans feel. What those two teens could’ve done sickens me. It sickens every good, honest, hard-working human.’

Zuwrath scoffed. ‘Well, I suppose there must be a few around. Ah, it sickens the humans, but your people continue to attack mine nonetheless.’

I’ve told you before, those are not my people.’

They’re human, aren’t they? You’re human. That makes them your people.’

It does not! My people are peaceful. My people don’t behave in ways that are detrimental to human affairs.’

Zuwrath leaned over her desk, her yellow slits boring into Maureen’s pale pupils. ‘Humans are humans,’ she said, as though this was supposed to mean something. ‘When one human attacks us, we must assume that all humans are a threat. Who knows how many sympathisers there are in that camp?’

There are no sympathisers!’ Maureen responded heatedly.

I cannot be certain of that. My media cannot be certain of that. Do you think you can convince the average virn that his or her family would be safe if a family of humans lived next door? Can you swear their children would be safe playing with human children? There have been problems with species integration throughout the history of the great Virn Empire, but you humans are something else. You cannot be trusted.’

The behaviour of an extremely small minority is a response to the way we have been treated over the years. Come on, Zuwrath, you know the virn media was against human from the beginning. Yes, the violence is wrong, and I’ll continue to repeat that until I’m blue in the face. Yes, the loss of both human and virn life is terrible, but –’

The loss of virn life,’ Zuwrath correct her, ‘is an abomination.’

It is. I’m not trying to deny that. I’m trying to get you to see that we’ve been treated as inferior, as second-class, as incompetent, as unintelligent for so long, as … as a species whose rights can be ignored for the benefit of the Empire. From the moment that we arrived, almost fifty years ago, we’ve been treated in that way. That’s why we slave away in factories with poor lighting, inadequate heating, and dangerous machinery, taking minimal breaks, while virn men and women work in clean, healthy environments that respect them and their needs. We need better standards, Zuwrath: we can’t spend as long in the sun as a virn without becoming dehydrated, and we can’t work for as many hours without rest.’

Then perhaps my predecessors fifty years ago were correct in placing you in that camp,’ Zuwrath stated.

Zuwrath, we’re as intelligent and capable as any virn. Our bodies aren’t identical to yours, but that doesn’t make up any lesser than you. Just like the offspring of virn who breed with other species can become tired faster than you, or they can’t grow back their tails, or they have fewer scales … we’re different, but just as valuable.

Inferior species.’

Some of the half-virn, half-bexelm children can store food and water in their bodies for up to a week in case they have to go without,’ Maureen pointed out. ‘That’s not inferior.’

The Controller’s eyes lit up, and she smashed her fist onto her desk before jabbing a long finger at the papers she had fussed over when they had first sat down. ‘You are here to discuss what happened at the shopping mall,’ she reminded Maureen. The Liaison forced herself to keep a straight face, despite her desire to grin: it was an achievement when Zuwrath ended an argument without first proving herself right.

Right, yes, of course. Yes. Well, obviously, we humans are deeply sorry for the upset that this incident has caused.’

And what am I supposed to do when the shoppers start demanding compensation for trauma? These high-class virn think the empire of themselves. If they see an opportunity to sue, they’ll go for it.

Please express our deepest sympathies. We woefully regret the actions of these two humans. However, Zuwrath, I would like to point out that the governors and I feel the situation could have been resolved without either of the humans being killed. If the perpetrators had been virn, well then, some humans might argue they would only have been stunned –’

A shipment of new containers was scheduled to be delivered to Valhalla tomorrow,’ Zuwrath interrupted. She rifled through the papers and pulled one out of the pile, then waved it in front of Maureen’s face. The Liaison saw the receipt for two thousand new containers, which would likely have housed more than ten thousand humans. She knew what Zuwrath was getting at.

We’ve been waiting for those containers for almost five years now,’ she said. ‘There are many families who’ve lived in tents since the first colonists settled here. They’ve been so patient, waiting for their chance to live in a container, where they can be protected from the weather and from thieves and from the spread of disease, and to have their own screens where they can view the news and learn to communicate with virn and better themselves and –

Zuwrath screwed the piece of paper up into a ball and threw it into the bin at the end of her desk. Maureen stopped talking.

They can wait a few more years, then,’ the Controller said.

Zuwrath,’ Maureen said, picking her words carefully, ‘people won’t stand for this. Those you punish for this action have done nothing wrong and have never caused you any strife – but the more humans you upset, the more enemies you’ll create for yourself. Don’t punish every human for this horrendous incident. Don’t place the blame on the heads of the innocent. On children.’

The Controller clicked her tongue and waved a hand at the door. ‘Get out,’ she said. Maureen stood, deliberately raking the wooden legs of her chair against the floor. Zuwrath flinched backwards at the sound, her sensitive hearing alarmed by the sharp noise.

‘One day, Zuwrath. One day you’ll go too far.’

The Controller’s grin almost split her face in two.

‘I said: get out.’

 

VALHALLA RISING – Prologue

Large, bold fonts flashed the names of the stores across the wide halls of the shopping mall. The text reflected in the shiny windows of those opposite, lighting up the goods that had been carefully set up and placed on display. Some of the stores were decorated with glittering lights, there to catch the attention of the busy shoppers, whose wallets and purses bulged with the potential to splurge on new and fashionable items.

The shopping centre had long, pale walls. Occasional pieces of modern artwork hung in some of the empty spaces. They were each labelled with the name of their creator, mostly students who lived in hope that the shoppers would notice their work and commission a piece for their own homes. The ceilings were high, designed to give the impression of peace and tranquillity; everything was there to encourage the happiness of the shoppers.

Heels clicked on tiled floors, creating a rhythmic pattern just audible above the soft music playing from the speakers high on the walls. The heat in there was astonishing, but it did not seem to bother any of the shoppers. The strutted around without a single concern for the temperature.

This was a place for the super-rich. The shoppers walked around with their noses held in the air, decked to the nines in designer clothes that proudly demonstrated their elitism. They wore dresses with bone collars that had been taken from endangered species (after the natural death of the animal, or so it was claimed). Handmade shoes so intricate that each pair was one of a kind. Fur coats, gloves, and hats; the marks of people who were simply too wealthy to care about the little man – or the whines of those do-gooder campaigners who were on their side.

Their children trailed along behind them, dressed immaculately in clothing that was worth more than the average man’s best suit. Some of them carried pets, which wore studied collars and pretty, unnecessary little items of clothing.

The precious stones worn by the shoppers shone in the bright lights of the mall. They hung on their jewellery and were stuck to the pieces of metal in their piercings. Their noses, ears, and lips bore loops and gems that gave them an air of obscene glamour. The communicators on their wrists were top-of-the-range, the newest designs to come off the market. Wearing anything as outdated as the second-best model would have been disastrous to these people. They flashed their wealth with confidence, bold and unafraid.

Slowly, they drifted from store to store, scrutinising what was on offer in judgemental voices. Store assistants rocked back and forth on their balls of their feet as they begged silently to whatever deity they believe in that they would make enough sales to fill their quota that day. They wore masks covered with the branded logo of their store, so that the shoppers would not have to look at their faces when – or if – they addressed them. It was customary and created a divide between the wealthy shopper and the employee that reinforced their social classes.

Prices were of no concern, which was why they were never displayed openly in the shop windows. If something was good enough for these shoppers, then the price of it was irrelevant.

It was rare to see middle- and lower-class shoppers in that mall. If they did manage to save up substantially, they occasionally went along to splash out, but when they did they clutched their money nervously and left feeling robbed. Heads would turn in their direction as they moved around the mall, undisguised tut tuts following them as they went. They were not encouraged to feel welcome; indeed, their presence was considered suspicious.

Many of the rich shoppers pitied these lower classes for their absurd fussing over the mere matter of price. Why did they bother to visit at all, if they had such a preoccupation with spending money? There were cheaper, outdated malls for their kind in other locations, loud and unclean places that suited them and their kind.

Even more unusual than lower-class shoppers were humans. Human men and women had strange opinions about right and wrong and good and bad, and they were not afraid to let these opinions be known. They had no sense of their place – which was somewhere else, far away from this mall – and made themselves the centre of attention wherever they went. The idea of a human being able to afford anything on offer in this mall was beyond ridiculous.

That was why the young human male and female who entered the shopping centre in the heat of a mid-week afternoon were so curious. They were evidently not wealthy enough to be there; that was obvious from the mud on their shoes to the knots in their hair. Shoppers stepped aside as the two humans approached, or else turned on their heels and went in the opposite direction to avoid walking past the pair altogether.

‘Liz,’ the young man whispered to his partner, a sense of urgency in his voice. ‘I’m not sure about this.’ He was dressed in a tracksuit with a long coat thrown over the top, wrapped tightly around his body. It was at least a couple of sizes too large for him, and he looked lumpy. One of his arms was wrapped around the woman’s shoulders, but she was the one leading him. They walked a short distance inside the mall, past a couple of security guards in masks who turned their heads and watched them go by, as though daring the humans to make a wrong move.

Liz, who had been clutching at her own tightly worn, lumpy jacket, removed her hands from the material for just long enough to pat her partner the back. ‘Ignore them, Jack,’ she said, as her hands found their way back to the jacket. ‘There’s no law against us being here. Besides, this is important. You know why. Nobody here cares. The virn don’t care.’

Jack stopped walking and took several deep breaths. Liz halted less than a second later, and spun immediately to look into his eyes. ‘Yeah,’ he said after a few moments of tense silence, ‘yeah … we have to. We have to.’ It sounded as though he was trying to convince himself more than in agreement with Liz. Jack dragged his eyes away from the piercing stare of his sister and looked around the mall instead, his eyes darting this way and that. Sweat was already forming on his brow at the thought of what was ahead, but that could have been put down to the heat. His hands shook a little as he checked that the coat was still closed. ‘Should we – uh – should we look around, or – or something – then?’

Liz pursed her lips in thought. If she was nervous or uncertain of what they were about to do, then she did not show it. ‘Yes, let’s go deeper inside,’ she said, before she spun around and walked on to scout out a store that interested her. ‘This one,’ she added after a while, pointing to a large store with an almost empty window, save for four handbags that were each seated atop a gold podium.

They headed in that direction, but before they could reach the entrance to the store the two security guards had caught up with them and stood in their way.

Liz puffed out her chest a little and said in her best, yet still somewhat broken, virnin. ‘Can we help you?’

Random security check,’ one of the virn guards answered. ‘Come with us.’

Jack, whose virnin was not as good as his sister’s, looked blankly at Liz. She made no sign that she was concerned, so he did his best to imitate her and plodded along silently behind her, following the two guards into a small room located near the entrance of the mall. The door closed behind them, and the two humans looked up at the masked guards with their best innocent faces.

Jack wanted to scream. The hairs on the back of his neck were making him feel itchy, and he was sure that the sweat on his brow was going to start forming pools of water at his feet at any moment.

One of the guards took off his mask and placed it down on the table. He stepped towards the two humans, and leaned down until he was eye-level with Jack. His sharp scales were too close for comfort, and Jack struggled to remain still under the glare of those thin, yellow eyes. The guard hissed sharply, smirking at Jack’s evident discomfort.

You look a little too hot, human. Not got something to hide, have you?’

Jack turned to Liz, for help more than for a translation.

Your mall’s very hot,’ she told the guard, looking him directly in the eyes as she spoke. There was a moment’s pause. ‘Why have you brought us here?’

Random security check,’ the other guard repeated.

Why? Random, two humans? We’ve got nothing to hide.’

Looks to me like you might have.’

The guard allowed those words to dangle in the air between them for a while. The one staring at Jack briefly flickered his eyes down to his oversized coat, and Jack found that he didn’t have to understand what was being said to know exactly what was going on.

He felt so stupid. Why had he allowed Liz to persuade him that this was something they should do? Why hadn’t they stayed in Valhalla, where they would have been hungry and miserable but safe nonetheless? It was all his sister’s fault: it had been her idea, her plan, she had been the one who had convinced Jack of its necessity. Now they were in serious trouble.

Jack stared into the unblinking eyes of the virn guard and swallowed the lump in his throat. He was sure that the guard would have been able to knock him out in one blow, if he wanted to. Jack was also pretty sure that the guard wanted to. It would be only too easy for the virn to get away with it. Humans, in the mall, causing trouble. Tried to get them to leave politely. Kid was scaring people. Had to do it, really, no other choice. He just wouldn’t comply.

Take off your coats,’ the masked guard said.

Liz shook her head. Jack, ignorant to his meaning, copied her. The guard in front of Jack, noticing that he did not understand the language, clicked his teeth impatiently.

‘Your coat comes off now,’ he told Jack in plain English. He had a thick accent and the words blended together a little. He prodded the young man’s shoulder with a thick finger, the point of his manicured nail digging through the material and into Jack’s skin. ‘Feel less hot then.’

‘No,’ Jack replied, a little bluntly. ‘I – I mean, I’m fine, thanks. I think I – I’d just like to leave.’

He tried to step around the guard, but a whirring sound stopped him in his tracks. He looked around at the other guard and saw that the virn was pointing a blaster at Liz’s face. It was long, thin, and the blue light on the side indicated that it was armed to stun.

Jack looked at Liz and wondered what he was supposed to do now. This was not a part of the plan. She stared at the blaster with one eyebrow raised, as though she was daring the guard to fire. Jack’s guard prodded him in the shoulder again, this time harder.

‘Okay,’ Jack said, seeing no other way out of the situation and wanting desperately to find one. ‘Okay. Fine. I’ll do it. I’ll take it off.’

‘Jack!’ Liz warned him. Jack paused, his hands hovering over the sash of his coat, poised to untie it.

His hesitation encouraged the guard with the blaster to change its settings from stun to kill. The light on the side turned from blue to green.

Defying his sister, Jack pulled the sash loose and let the coat fall down to the floor. He saw a flash before he was overwhelmed by an intense surge of pain in the middle of his chest.

Then it was over.

It has been a long time …

… but I have decided to return to this blog.

My next series of posts will be a novella named VALHALLA RISING, a science-fiction tale about human refugees living on an alien world, which is already completed in draft form. Depending on interest in the novella, I may or may not post the complete story on this blog.

I look forward to returning to my reader to explore and to discover new blogs, and I hope that you all enjoy the return of Inspired Stories and Poems!

– Laura Marie Clark

YouTube Tuesday: Death in the Summer

Well, I’ve been away for a couple of days, super busy with the 50th Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies at the University of Birmingham. The Symposium was fantastic, I got to see some great papers and meet some inspiring academics.

12 hour days of volunteering now over, it’s time for another YouTube Tuesday. Here’s Death in the Summer.

Death in the Summer

Icicles hanging in rows from the ceiling
Dripping freezing water onto the tiles
Until a pool that chills me forms below

It’s summer outside; inside winter reigns
Where heat cannot penetrate, and water drips
Though the icicles refuse to melt away

Children play merry games of chase in the playground
Parents bask in the midday sun with lazy abandon
And there is frost around me in this frozen wasteland

Smiles should ease the harshness of this storm
Should, a word on which to focus all attention
But still those icicles drip water onto the tiles

The kitchen is abandoned to another dimension
Where this bleak wilderness has not taken control
Nor the universe agreed upon my icy tomb

The tiles were the final place you laid your head